The reinvention of Disney California Adventure begins at the front gate with a new entry promenade designed to make you forget the missteps of the recent past while recalling the Golden State’s golden age.
The reimagined Buena Vista Street will pay homage to the Los Angeles that Walt Disney encountered upon his 1923 arrival with Spanish Revival and Art Deco architecture that replicates the Los Feliz, Silver Lake and Wilshire Boulevard areas of the city.
Buena Vista Street represents the Main Street U.S.A. element that Disney California Adventure has sorely lacked since the theme park opened next to Disneyland in 2001.
Gone are the sweeping mosaic tile murals, strip mall architecture, faux Golden Gate Bridge, immobile California Zephyr train and uninspired Sunshine Plaza fountain that set a low bar and muddled tone for the rest of the Anaheim theme park.
Taking its place are the Pan Pacific Auditorium-themed ticket turnstile, Bullocks Wilshire-inspired shopping arcade and Carthay Circle Theater-replica restaurant all connected by a Red Car trolley line.
As Disney attempts to reset the clock to the 1920s and 1930s, it’s necessary to travel back in time to February 2001 when California Adventure opened to a tepid response and harsh reviews. DCA, as the park became known to locals, had the ring of a corporate acronym like IBM or AT&T and quickly earned a reputation as an on-the-cheap waste of time and money.
The park billed itself as an adult-oriented playground with artisan wines and fine dining where off-the-shelf rides were an afterthought and Disney characters were purposefully left out of the mix. The park’s storytelling premise offered tourists an opportunity to visit all of California without the hassle of traveling the 5 Freeway.
Many visitors came once and never returned. Others groused, spreading bad word of mouth. After attempting a series of quick fixes, Disney executives finally acknowledged their colossal mistake and announced a $1.1-billion plan to infuse the park with more Disney DNA over a five-year period. A decade after the initial debut, a grand reopening on June 15 attempts to reintroduce Disney California Adventure as a new and improved park.
I toured Buena Vista Street several times during press and visitor preview events while finishing touches were still being made on the entry promenade.
Set in the time period between Walt’s 1923 arrival in L.A. and the 1937 premiere of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” at the Carthay, Buena Vista Street tells a back story reverse engineered by Disney Imagineers where visitors meet the inspirations for the animated characters that the studio’s animators were only then dreaming up.
The themed shops and restaurants hint at early Disney characters that would eventually become Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Julius the Cat, Clarabelle the Cow, Dumbo the Flying Elephant and Mortimer Mouse (better known today as Mickey).
Stepping out from under the Streamline Moderne Pan Pacific turnstiles onto Buena Vista Street, you come upon a small plaza flanked by Oswald’s gas station on one side and Mortimer’s Market on the other with a Red Car waiting at the station.
A radio broadcast playing at Oswald’s recaps the news, traffic and weather around town. A trolley conductor transfers the overhead catenary pole from one wire to another. A couple sits on a bench covered in colorful mosaic tile.
Drawing disparate elements from a variety of L.A. landmarks, individual Disney Imagineers were assigned to design each of the building facades to give the street an organic, eclectic feel as if the storefronts were built by a succession of competing architects.
A concrete arch bridge, based on the Glendale-Hyperion Bridge in Atwater Village, serves as a dividing line between the Los Feliz neighborhood near the main entrance and the Wilshire Boulevard area closer to the park’s new central hub. It’s not until the futuristic Monorail passes overhead that you realize you’ve been transported to another time and place.
Piped-in sounds emanate from the second-story businesses, bringing to life the imagined dance lessons and art classes under way up above. Donna the Dog Lady, dressed in period costume with a puppy in her arms, pauses to talk to a visitor about the latest gossip on Buena Vista Street, never breaking from character.
Looking back over your shoulder, the bridge serves as the berm that locks you into the park, just as the Disneyland train station does across the esplanade. Now you’re completely encased in an imaginary world with the Elias & Company department store on one side, the Fiddler, Fifer and Practical Cafe on the other and the towering Carthay Circle straight ahead.
A quick blast from a Red Car’s air whistle pierces the air. Above the candy shop doorway, a pair of bears paw at a bee hive in an elaborately carved frieze. Water gurgles from the blue glass fountain in the middle of the central hub.
Across the street, a family poses for a photo with the Walt and Mickey “Storytellers” statue, throwing their arms around the young artist newly arrived in California. The mouse who made him famous, who won’t arrive on the scene until 1928, jauntily stands atop a cardboard suitcase.
All the Buena Vista scenes small and large set the stage for Walt’s second act in Los Angeles, a fitting sequel to the Disneyland first act depicting his childhood in Marceline, Mo.
It’s hard not to imagine how different Disney California Adventure would have been on opening day if the entire park had been infused with the level of detail and storytelling found in Buena Vista Street.
It’s taken more than a decade, but Disney has finally gotten it right. With Buena Vista Street as a benchmark, I can’t wait to see what’s next for California Adventure.